This new Australian play explores immigration and racism through the prism of one family business
Disapol Savetsila is 23 years old and his first full-length play is making a debut for the books at Sydney Theatre Company: he is the youngest writer ever programmed at the prestigious company. And it’s easy to see why: Australian Graffiti tells a quintessentially Australian story with a playful, thoughtful dose of fantasy in the tradition of magic realism.
Ben (Mason Phoumirath) has just arrived in a small town in regional New South Wales. His mother (Gabrielle Chan) has relocated their Thai restaurant several times since she opened it in Sydney – heading farther and farther west each time competing businesses threaten to squeeze them out. They’ve always brought the same team with them: Loong (Srisacd Sacdpraseuth), a great cook; and Nam (Monica Sayers) and Boi (Kenneth Moraleda), a married couple who work long hours to send home money to their young daughter, who remains in Thailand.
This is Ben’s family. His life has been spent in the back rooms of restaurants, and now that he’s 16, he’s itching for something more expansive. He wants to have a home. And why not here, in this town? It can’t be worse than any others, and there’s a girl – Gabby (Airlie Dodds) – who he might just love.
Time passes slowly in regional Australian towns. To a newcomer, it can be baffling. Buildings bear the names of businesses that haven’t occupied the space in 20 years; the most objectively boring or ugly spots in the town are spoken about fondly because they represent a collective local lore, or a family story, or a giddy childhood misdemeanour. Lifelong, generations-deep residents of country towns have a tendency to associate a physical sense of place with a sense of identity. If you criticise the town, you are criticising the person.
And this town isn’t much interested in change or Thai food or criticism or people who aren’t white and country-bred. When mysterious graffiti shows up on the local Baptist church, tempers flare quickly. There’s a mob outside the restaurant, a cop (Peter Kowitz) trying to intimidate Ben’s family into a confession, and Loong has died – though this doesn’t mean he’s stopped talking to his restaurant family all the time.
This is a story more concerned with people than events, and how they react to extenuating circumstances; for example, Ben and has family have had to face down a lifetime of systemic xenophobia that manifests in conscious and unconscious racism. We see evidence of that racism straight away, more playful than harmful, but the harm is waiting just around the corner. It’s very believable harm, especially if you’ve ever spent time in the central west of New South Wales. Savetsila grew up in Bathurst and spent time in Parkes; Gabby exhibits a laconic jingoism, half-ironic, half-sincere, that feels specific to that area.
Even though the play understands where it is and how those places operate, it feels unresolved as a narrative. For a slightly longer running time (not a tough ask with these characters; they’re interesting, likeable, and compelling) we might have a richer theatrical experience. But Paige Rattray's production is oddly subdued. It’s more gentle than it is shocking, more muted than explosive, and tension never quite seems to build onstage; we fill it in, because we know the shape of these stories (if an angry mob appears in a drama, it's not going to end well), but it's not coming from the stage itself.
This play doesn’t burn with anger or outrage or injustice. It despairs, quietly. It points to the absurdity of the xenophobia of these white townspeople, whose homes and livelihoods exist at the expense of displaced and slaughtered Indigenous communities. It keeps us inside the restaurant’s back room and keeps the town at bay. This is almost horrifying in its own right – the unseen terror lurking just offstage – but the tamped-down onstage action never lets us feel deep tension or unease. Playing things either bigger or smaller than they are might have been more effective – playing them smaller would bring intimacy and feeling to the fore; playing it bigger would give the story more scale and tension. A caveat here: we bring to plays our own context clues and experiences; as a white person who grew up in country towns, my contexts and experiences are not those of a person of colour in those towns or in this stubbornly racist country, so the story could and should feel different here for others.
But the play does feel undercooked. Its tendency to withhold occasionally pays off – the nature of the graffiti is kept from us to great effect – but for the most part it holds its own story at arm’s length. We’re left in an oddly flat place, despite a strong story structure, and some beautiful short monologues from Loong, Ben’s mother Baa, and Nam, which bring lovely, thoughtful explorations of humanity to the stage.
It might be reductive to come back to Savetsila’s age, but it’s important to remember that this is a playwriting debut by someone much younger than is usually granted space at the country’s premier theatre company. There’s tremendous promise in Savetsila’s writing: he has a wholly realistic and satisfying tendency to get the balance right when marrying deeply tragic moments with stress-relieving, naturally occurring laughter; his restlessness with traditional narrative is rewarding and his use of gently absurd, reality-testing devices (an abstract use of David Fleischer’s stage; speaking with the dead) allows for rich, nimble playwriting. He’s one to watch.